The account of my first trip to Paris, with Renata back in 1987, is best left undescribed. It would be much better if I could just say “Renata and I made our first trip to Paris in 1987”, and leave it at that. It sounds so romantic, so well-traveled. “Our first trip to Paris…”.
What we really did was change trains in Paris, and we were so uninformed at the time we didn’t realize we needed to change train stations as well. Coming from Amsterdam we arrived at Gare du Nord and looked for our continuing train to Bayonne, a coastal town bordering northern Spain. But there are six Paris train stations and most southbound trains leave from Gare d’Austerlitz. So we ended up hauling our not unsubstantial load of luggage (we were moving to Ceuta, Spain) through the Paris Metro system. It was difficult, tense and exhausting. Our only reward for being in Paris was the glimpse of a very distant Eiffel Tower offered to us when the subway car emerged briefly from a tunnel to cross the Seine by bridge.
Fortunately we have been back to Paris a few times, and as a family it is one of our favorite big city destinations. It has a certain I-don’t-know-what. Like London it has the air of empire about it, but unlike its English rival it knows that, in fact, the glory has departed. London lives a delusion; Paris knows the show is just a show, and oddly this makes it more authentic.
Two weeks ago I went to Paris again…for lunch. That’s right, Paris for lunch. I caught the 06:31 high-speed train, the Thalys, from Amsterdam’s airport and alighted just over 3 hours later at Gare du Nord. That being said, “high speed” is a bit of a deception with regard to the Belgian part of the journey: both going and coming, it took us a full hour between Antwerp and Brussels, a distance of roughly 50 kilometers as the crow would fly. Belgium’s woes are reflected in its train system; like a number of families I’ve known the country is essentially a dysfunctional entity waiting for a good enough excuse to fall apart.
This trip was conceived nearly two years ago when I was the assistant priest at the Old Catholic church in Amsterdam. There I met an ordained American Episcopalian, active in the parish, who had not yet checked-in with the Episcopalian bishop in Paris. At the same time another local American Episcopalian friend was trying to figure out how to have his sense of vocation to the ministry properly tested. Wanting to assist both of them in their discernment about ministry, I suggested we should make a pilgrimage to Paris to meet Pierre (the bishop). Since then our situations have all changed, but still there was enough reason to finally make the trip. The bishop would see us for lunch on Friday.
We rendezvoused at a café across the street from the American Cathedral, where we had a late breakfast of croissants and coffee. Then over to the cathedral to poke around until the bishop arrived, late, looking like he had just emerged from the shower. Never mind; he took us back across the street to his favorite restaurant where, judging by the reception from the maître d’, he was well known and liked. To say the restaurant is decorated in Art Nouveau style is a little misleading – this is a stunning example of a well-preserved original Art Nouveau interior.
We had an excellent lunch, told our respective stories to the bishop, received his wisdom, and then headed out again into the bright sunshine. The three friends caught a taxi across the river, past the Eiffel Tower to Saint Germain, where two of us continued on foot toward the Notre Dame, then back to the Metro for our homebound journey from Gare du Nord. I was home again at 21:30.
The next day I was at Amsterdam’s airport again at 06:30, this time to check in for a flight taking me toward another Paris, one I hadn’t known existed until I signed up for a course on “transitional ministry” (helping churches through major transitions). The flight would take me to Toronto where, because of the G8 / G20 summits, I would have to proceed immediately to the course venue instead of staying with friends for a night as originally planned. Like many downtown Toronto residents they decided to flee the mayhem the G-conferences had created. No worries; I would simply be a day early at my course location.
Landing in Toronto I was surprised to see an airplane on the tarmac that looked just like Air Force One. “Wait a minute,” I realized, “that is Air Force One!”
I saved myself a bundle of money by not renting a car for the week, knowing that once I was at the conference center I could rely on my Christian friends for any necessary rides. But for the initial leg I arranged a car and driver. Ron, my driver, was recently retired from a career in sales, and took this chauffeur job for the extra cash. With the rest of his spare time, and with the help of the internet, he had been digging deep into philosophy and theology. He was incredibly well read and articulate, and kept me engaged for most of the hour-plus journey with a debate on Pelagius and Augustine.
And so we arrived in Paris. A leafy, dozy greater-Toronto bedroom community located on the Grand River (Not!), and self-proclaimed “world famous” for being the location of one end of Alexander Graham Bell’s first long-distance telephone call, and for being the origin of so-called plaster of Paris. But apart from the fact that a river runs through it, there is little semblance between the French Paris and its Ontario namesake. Judging by the names of some other Ontario cities (London, Brussels, Berlin), incorporating a city with the name of a European capital was the rage at the time.
Later, as I sat on my bed at the empty conference grounds munching a baguette sandwich I had the foresight to buy at the Toronto airport, I pondered what an odd 24 hours I’d just had.